The Unassailable Voice of Solidarity : Social Transformation Through Protest Songs

Abstract: Songs have played an important role in revolutionary struggles in all places, at all times, in the history of the world. The emotive power of the song has been exploited by the Communist Party in Kerala in order to propagate their ideology and to create awareness among the working classes about the injustice prevailing in the then Kerala society. Protest songs sung during the revolts and campaigns, the revolutionary songs in plays and movies of the times all served to inspire the masses and to sow the seeds of social transformation. This paper is an attempt to bring together some of those songs which imparted the message of socialist revolution.

Keywords: protest songs, communist party, social transformation, revolution song, social transformation, latin America, politics of fear, political campaign, sense of communism

The song is considered to be a democratic art form. It is a cultural space where the diverse strands of the society meet and is a medium to reach out to the masses. As Lauren E. Shaw states in his Introduction to Song and Social Change in Latin America, “Song can help give voice to a people who otherwise are not heard, can amplify that voice and can help create solidarity. By merely proposing questions pertaining to our circumstances, a song has the power to shift people’s consciousness and create a vision for a better world” (1).

Songs have played an important role in revolutionary struggles in all places, at all times, in the history of the world. Lisette Balabarca explores in “Social Denunciation of the Politics of Fear: Rock Music through the 80s in Argentina, Chile and Peru,” how in the 1980s Rock Music in Argentina, Chile and Peru served as an expressive release valve for populations suffering under extremely repressive and often brutal regimes during that particular time and place. Similarly, Lei Ouyang Bryant elucidates how in an effort to educate and mobilise the masses during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, revolutionary music played a key role in the dissemination of political campaigns and ideologies. Singing was an element of the student protest in Shanghai too.

In 1939 when the Communist Party was formally launched in Kerala, wall writings and slogans such as “Victory to Revolution”, “Destroy Imperialism”, “Communist Party Zindabad” were used to announce it publicly for the first time. Since then such slogans and songs have created ripples in the Kerala society. The ‘anti-war’, ‘anti British’ agitations made the Communist Party in Kerala more popular than the Indian National Congress during the years 1939-42.

As K. C. George says in his autobiography Ente Jeevithayathra (The Journey of My Life), it was a time when all roads led to Communism. Eminent personalities from all walks of life, scientists, poets, litterateurs, political thinkers, students, and even Christian priests joined the Communist Party, since the essence of all religions i.e. philanthropy and social justice, could be preserved only in a Communist society.

The earlier communist activity in Kerala was predominantly class based. It sought for the liberation of the working classes and the peasants. The communists could win the hearts and minds of the people who were destined to be repressed as feudal serfs. ‘Democratic Centralism’ was the foundation on which the edifice of the Party was built. They employed various methods to propagate the party ideology among all strata of the society. Portions of the Communist Manifesto were translated into Malayalam by the leaders of the Communist League. Political pamphlets were circulated. Study classes were conducted. Demonstrations were held. Protest songs were written and sung at political campaigns and party meetings.

The ‘Kerala Jeeval Sahithya Sammelanam’ was held under the leadership of K. Damodaran and A. D. Harisarma on the heels of the ‘Progressive Writers’ Association’ formed in Lucknow in 1936. Thus Progressive Literature became popular in Kerala too. It replaced the slogan ‘Art for Art’s sake’ by ‘Art for Society’s sake’ and inspired crusades against feudal landlords. As E. M. S. Nampoodiripad says, it was a literature that reflected and encouraged the efforts of progressive forces to criticise the existing canons of feudalism, untouchability, gender inequality etc. (239).

The protest songs could easily gain momentum among the people of Kerala, who are heirs of a rich tradition of folk songs like communal songs, ritualistic songs and labour songs. The songs, as public texts, offered a site of resistance. They raised the self esteem of the people and inculcated in them a sense of community. We are here reminded of the words of the factory worker whom Vivian Wagner quotes in his paper on the song of the Red Guards, “The more one sings revolutionary songs; the redder becomes one’s heart, singing makes the whole body burst with energy! When singing about advancing we advance, when singing about heroes, we learn to be heroes; with long strides we advance on the road of revolutionising.”

The ‘Red Flag song’ written by T. S. Thirumumpu used to be sung while hoisting the red flag at the meetings of the ‘Karshakasangham.’ It exhorted the peasants and the working classes to stand united beneath the red flag and to vanquish the powers of Feudalism and Imperialism. The song which visualises a world where socialism rules, continues to inspire the peasants of North Malabar.

In his book Kayyurinte Katha, Kottara Vasudev narrates his interview with Kodakaravalappil Chemmarathi who had participated in the demonstration on March 25, 1941. To his surprise the old lady still remembered many of the songs sung during the revolt in Kayyur.

We are not slaves anymore

We will fight with determination Never again will we ruin our lives By bowing before the feudal lords.

Though we are poor and illiterate

We possess the strength to work hard

It is we who labour in the fields day and night

But it is the landlords who amass wealth

(My Translation) (99).

The song throws light on the sad plight of the labourers who do not have food or shelter in spite of their hard work in the fields. It resonates with their indomitable spirit when they affirm that they are not afraid even of death. Songs like this, filled with revolutionary vigour served to diffuse an anti-feudalist message in the society. They could find an echo in every bosom, and the people came together in the fight corruption. Kottara Vasudev describes the glow in Chemmarathi’s face as she basks in those memories again.

A. K. Gopalan, who was known by the title ‘the crusader of the downtrodden’, recalls in his autobiography Ente Jeevithakatha (The Story of My Life), that the revolutionary songs written by T. S. Thirumumbu and Premji were sung even by children during those days (125). These songs played a crucial role in creating awareness of the injustice the people suffered. Catering to the affective domain, they stirred the spirits of the listeners.

Songs like those written by R. Sugathan describe that the landlord who never came when the labourers were working hard, tilling and sowing the land, arrived at the harvest time, thus robbing the serfs of the fruits of their labour. Such instances were portrayed in the literary works of that time also; a fine example being the novel Rantidangazhi by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai.

The fact that pamphlets like Viplavageethangal by T. M. Prasad and Pattinippattukal by D. M. Pottekkad were also confiscated when the Central Government declared the Communist party as unlawful in 1949, gives ample evidence for how influential the protest songs were in the contemporary society.

When in 1957 the Kerala Government lead by E.M.S. Nampoodirippad inaugurated a memorial for the revolutionaries who laid their lives down in India’s first war of Independence in 1857, the song ‘Balikudeerangale…’, the spirited tribute to martyred revolutionaries penned by Vayalar Ramavarma and composed by

G. Devarajan was sung. Since then the song has been an inspiration for people who take part in political protests and marches.

Apart from the protest songs sung during revolts and demonstrations, the songs incorporated in the popular art forms of the times also proved instrumental in sowing the seeds of social transformation. The Kerala People’s Art Club (K.P.A.C.), founded in the 1950s stands foremost in such efforts. The second play of the K.P.A.C., Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made me Communist), staged in 1952, was a clarion call against caste system. The songs in this play including lines like, “If we stand united, we can become the owners of the fields that we reap”(My Translation), exhorted people to rise up and fight against the vices of feudalism. The song “muriyarivalevide poyedi…(where is the sickle…)” in the play Innale Innu Nale (Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow), written and directed by Thoppil Bhasi narrates the struggle against the feudal lords. The Pulaya lady in the song tells how the labourers reaped the harvest, how the landlord stored the grain in his warehouse, how the peasants hoisted the red flag and defeated the landlord in the elections and how their government gave them land to cultivate. This was what every peasant desired. To break away the chains and to be the owner of her/his life.

The song in the play Yanthram, Sudarshanam, written by A. N. Ganesh and directed by Thoppil Bhasi, urges the labourers to strike work till the dawn of a new, revolutionary era, “…with human power as our Capital/ and Marxism as our armour/ the revolt of labourers / against bureaucracy and bourgeoisie”(My Translation) (Vayalar 1014). The song from the play Nammalonnu proclaims solidarity among the labourers. The peasants, the coir workers all are on a par with each other in their collective experience of humiliation, poverty and helplessness.

Blow the trumpets

Blow the trumpets of life

…………….

Let us go for tomorrow’s harvest To procure our lands

Sing, the soldiers of the new dawn

…we who suffer humiliation are One.

…we who plough and sow the untilled land Are One (My Translation) (Vayalar 1017-18).

As Perumbuzha Gopalakrishnan, the biographer of G. Devarajan, recounts in the preface to G. Devarajan: Sangeethathinte Rajashilpi, the emotion that the songs of K.P.A.C. triggered was indescribable (7).

The message of the socialist revolution was further transferred to the framework of the popular Malayalam cinema. Songs written by Vayalar Ramavarma like, ”Workers of the World, we have nothing to lose but our chains…”, for the movie Thulabharam (1968), “Comrades, Onward…for Punnapra Vayalar (1968), “Workers of the world, Unite…” for Anubhavangal Paalichakal (1971) and by P. Bhaskaran like “From every drop of blood shed for the cause, will arise a thousand comrades more!” written for Mooladhanam (1969) inspired the masses. These songs are still heard at places of political campaigns and meetings.

All the aforementioned songs resonated with the voice and the experience of the suffering working class in the society. They acted as tools to define space, time and social relations. The peasants and labourers could easily relate their own lives with that portrayed in these songs. The revolutionary language of these songs inspired the people, especially the youth. The lyrics and the rhythm of revolution together provided a medium for solidarity and a sense of community.

The songs abound with words like ‘we’ and ‘our.’ Each song is an exhortation to stand united and rise up against the vicious customs of feudalism and caste distinction. The common people could easily relate their own condition to that portrayed in the songs. They have succeeded in their effort to inculcate in the working classes the belief that they would soon be able to regain their lands and lives of which they were hitherto dispossessed. Many of these songs were passed on from mouth to mouth and from generation to generation. Mostly written in the vein of folk songs, they could find a refrain in each heart. This dimension of a ‘collectiveness’ to which each individual episode can be extended makes them documents of historical importance.

REFERENCES

Balabarca, Lisette. “Social Denunciation of the Politics of Fear: Rock Music through the Eighties in Argentina, Chile and Peru.” Song and Social Change in Latin America. UK: Lexington, 2013. 77-90. Web.

Bryant, Lei Ouyang. “Music, Memory and Nostalgia: Collective Memories of Cultural Revolution Songs in Contemporary China.” China Review. 5.2. (2005). 151-175. Web.

George, K. C. Ente Jeevithayathra. Kottayam: NBS, 1985. Print.

Gopalakrishnan, Perumbuzha. G. Devarajan: Sangeethathinte Rajasilpi.

Kozhikode: Olive, 2005. Print.

Gopalan, A. K. Ente Jeevithakatha. Trivandrum: Chintha, 1980. Print. Nampoodiripad, E. M. S. EMS Sampoornakrithikal 1936-1938. Vol.2. Trivandrum:

Chintha, 1994. Print.

—. Communist Party Keralathil. Trivandrum: Chintha, 1984. Print. Ramavarma, Vayalar. Vayalar Kavithakal. Kottayam: NBS, 1984. Print

Shaw, Lauren E. ed. Song and Social Change in Latin America. UK: Lexington, 2013. Web.

Vasudev, Kottara. Kayyurinte Katha. Trivandrum: Chintha, 2009. Print.

Wagner, Vivian. “Songs of the Red Guards: Keywords Set to Music”. academics.wellesley.edu. Web.

Contributor:

ANUSREE R. NAIR. Is a young scholar. Her areas of interest include life writing and Kerala studies.

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ANUSREE R. NAIR

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